Mirror Case with Lunar Scene, Qing dynasty, 19th century. Embroidered silk gauze. The Metropolitan Museum of ArtEmbroiery in China has a long history dating back to the invention of silk four thousand years ago. It is known that the ceremonial garments of the tribal leaders of that time were decorated with embroidered patterns of the sun, the moon, stars, weed, fire and other auspicious symbols.
To date the earliest survived embroidery works are the two 4th century BC pieces unearthed from the Chu Tombs. The patterns of dragon, phoenix, tiger and beast embroidered on silk appear natural and lifelike which gives full credit to the achivements of embroidery art in the ancient China.
The art of embroidery further developed during Qin and Han dynasties. Embroideries of that time represent the artistic style as well as the high level of embroidery and mostly have patterns of ripple-like clouds, soaring phoenix, galloping holy beasts, ribbon-shaped flowers, geometric figures etc, using basically locking method with neat stitching, compact compostion and smooth lines.
Rank Badge with Lion, Ming dynasty, 15th century. Silk and metallic-thread embroidery on silk gauze. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Although the locking embroidery technique was still followed in the Tang Dynasty (6-10th century), another skill called plain stitching method had already been widely used together with some other stitching methods, using colour thread and wider range of fabrics. Besides, patterns were edged with golden and silvery thread to give a three-dimensional effect.
Rank badge, 19th century, Silk satin embroidered with coloured silks and gold thread Stylised images of birds and animals were respectively used to indicate the different ranks of civil and military officials. The Victoria and Albert Museum
Prince's tunic (detail), red silk satin with embroidery in polychrome silks and gold thread, lined with blue figured silk, China, possibly early Ming, 1368-1450. The Victoria and Albert Museum
In the Ming and Qing dynasties traditional Chinese embroidery reached its peak. Embroidery became an industry in itself, with men, women and children engaged in its manufacture. The base cloth for embroidery was as before silk, of every weight from gauze to satin, although cotton was also used in a small way. Very short (about 3 cm) fine needles were used, initially made of ivory or bone, later of copper, bronze or steel. Satin stitch was used extensively and couching was also popular as a way to anchor gold and silver threads which could not be sewn directly as they might split the silk cloth. To give a soft texture, to fill in small areas or to define details Peking knot stitch was used. It has been called "blind stitch" because it was said to ruin the eyesight of the embroiderers.
Lady's tunic, woven silk with embroidery in coloured silks, made in China for the Indian Parsi community, Qing dynasty, 19th century. The Victoria and Albert Museum
Hanging scroll of satin embroidered with silk and gold threads, 1800-1850, embroidered with floss silks in long and short, split and stem stitches laid and couched work. The Victoria and Albert Museum
Four famous schools of embroidery developed during that time: Su, Yue, Shu and Xiang. Su embroidery uses brightly coloured threads. Often three or four different kinds of thread either of the same colour or of similar shade are applied to produce a hazy effect. Overlapping stitching is mainly used. The works mainly feature the natural world with plants, animals, fishes, birds and landscapes being the most typical motifs.
Embroidered altar hanging, Qing dynasty, late 17th - early 18th century. Silk and gold thread embroidery on silk satin
Yue embroidery is believed to have originated from the works of the Li ethnic minority group. Their embroidered works included primarily dress and adornments, hanging screens, shoulder bags, fans, fan cases etc. Yue embroidery often depict mythical creatures such as sun-worshiping birds, dragons and phoenixes, as well as less mythical motifs such as peony, pine and crane, deer, chicken and goose. Rough and loose thread is used to make uneven stitches, some longer and some shorter, overlapping one another and raised a bit. It generally does not attempt to create an illusion of depth found in other styles. The gold-nailing embroidery is one of its quality varieties. Works made using gold-nailing technique include stage costumes, furnishings for theaters and temples. With bright colors and a variety of different threads used, Yue embroidery is perhaps the most eclectic of the four major Chinese embroidery styles.
Tang dynasty, early 8th century. Silk embroidery on plain-weave silk The pattern seen on this embroidery - birds standing on lotus blossoms (a motif derived from Buddhist art) - was popular in the early Tang period. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Roundel, possibly between 1736 - 1820. Silk satin with embroidery in silk and gilt thread. Only the Emperor and his consorts (including the Empress), and the Crown Prince, would have worn roundels bearing front-facing dragons. The Victoria and Albert Museum
Shu embroidery, also known as Sichuan embroidery, mainly include quilt covers, pillow cases, garments, shoes and painted screens, mostly articles of everyday use. The designs are largely flowers, birds, insects, fish, folk auspicious words and traditional patterns. Since the middle and later period of Qing Dynasty Shu embroidery became one of the most important embroidery varieties in the country. Shu embroidery features neat stitching, smoothness and brightness, with lines clear, colour gorgeous, pattern-edge uniform as if cut with knife.
Panel with Phoenixes and Flowers, Yuan dynasty, 14th century. Silk and metallic thread embroidery on silk gauze. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Panel with Flowers in Vase and Scholar's Objects, Qing dynasty, 18th century. Silk and metallic-thread embroidery with small pearls on woven silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Xiang embroidery mimics other art forms such as painting, engraving and calligraphy.It is "reversible" in the sense that it is double-sided and has very soft, very smooth surface. Motifs are typically human, bird and animal figures and landscapes, among which depictions of lions and tigers dominate.
Nowadays embroidery is mostly produced in embroidery centres and is used for traditional Chinese wedding garments, household linens and panels for tourists.
1. Chinese Arts and Crafts by Hang Jian and Guo Qiuhui
2. A Collector's Guide to Chinese Dress Accessories by Valery M.Garrett
3. World Textiles by John Gillow and Brian Sentance